Yakir Englander

On the Mental Trauma of the Tribe of Levi

A D’var Torah for Parashat Metzorah, Dedicated to the memory of Daniel Yaakov and Yael

This week’s Torah portion describes a “backdoor” entry into understanding the priesthood and the Tribe of Levi. Acts of Temple worship like the offering of sacrifices and the burning of aromatic herbs take place “up front,” where the Israelites in the courtyard (‘azarah) gaze in awe at the priests and Levites. By contrast, this Parasha describes how the Levitical priests minister to lepers and those with bodily discharges — marginalized people whom the community does not wish to see or acknowledge, and who the Torah commands must be expelled from the camp.

There’s something elusive about the role of the Levitical priests. Ostensibly, they define the community’s boundaries: it is their verdict, for example, that determines when lepers are barred from the camp, and when they may return. A woman who has just given birth, and anyone with a discharge of bodily fluid, are prohibited from entering the Temple precincts until they present their offering to the priests, after which they are permitted to approach the sacred. The Levites are “guardians of the gate” – i.e. privileged keepers of the Jewish community’s entries and exits.

Upon closer examination, however, we learn that the priests who define community space, themselves lack clear physical and emotional spaces that belong to them. “The Levitical priests, the whole tribe of Levi, shall have no territorial portion with Israel… The LORD is their portion as He has promised them” (Deuteronomy 18:1).

The Tribe of Levi lacks a physical home, the Torah explains, because the Divine Source of Jewish faith, who has no body and no corporeal form, is their inheritance. It seems strange, that the very group who give the most time and devotion to divine worship, should be so short-changed by divine decree. Let me be clear: the Levites, while “without inheritance,” did indeed have cities to dwell in; these were designated for them from each tribal territory.  However, scattered thus among the tribes, the Levites’ home and community boundaries were not contiguous or stable. In addition, the six cities given to the Levites were also designated as “cities of refuge;” perpetrators of accidental manslaughter from anywhere in Israel could flee to these cities, where they were welcomed and protected from blood vengeance. The Levitical cities were hardly havens of domestic tranquility. A modern version of these cities of refuge, might, I imagine, boast as many yeshivas as Israel’s city of Bnei Brak, along with a per capita crime rate to rival Saint Louis, Missouri.

The complex heritage of the Tribe of Levi can be traced to its cultural DNA, from its conception. Levi’s mother, Leah, knew that she was unloved by her husband Jacob; he remained with her only because of an agreement he had made with her father Laban, with the intention of marrying Leah’s sister, Rachel. Jacob disliked Leah so much that he did not even bother naming the children he fathered with her. Leah herself named their first son, Reuben (“See! A son!”). This name expressed both her gratitude to the Divine for noticing her suffering, and her hope that Jacob, seeing this firstborn son, would regard Leah differently.  This hope failed, so Leah named her second son Simeon (from the Hebrew word for “hearing”): “Because the LORD heard (shama’) that I am hated, He has given me this one too.” Her third son’s name restates her failed hope: “Now this time my husband will become attached (yilaveh) to me, because I have borne him three sons; therefore, his name was Levi” (Genesis 29:34).

The Tribe of Levi originated, then, in the trauma of a spurned woman, unloved by her husband; in Levi’s birth, we find the seed of his mother’s renewed hope to feel accepted and “at home” with Jacob. This traumatic yearning expresses the corporate personality of the Tribe of Levi, and a primal feeling of obligation to create a home for his mother conditions Levi’s later actions.

When his sister Dinah was kidnapped and raped by Shechem, Levi (together with his brother Simeon) cunningly and cruelly killed all the men in the city – the rapists as well as those who allowed the rape to occur. Jacob, alarmed by the brutality of their reaction, sharply criticized his sons: “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites; my fighters are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed” (Genesis 34:30).

Jacob accuses Levi and Simeon of endangering, by their acts, the entire Hebrew community. They answer him with a sentence that continues to echo in Jewish history: “Should our sister be treated like a whore?”  Latent in this retort is a counter-accusation: “You, Jacob, treated our mother Leah like a whore – taking advantage of her love for you, in order to bring children into the world, while toying with her hope. Using her as a mere tool for reproduction, you ignored her as a person. Now we, for our part, will not allow you, or anyone, to ignore the disaster that has befallen our sister.”

It is unsurprising that the Tribe of Levi, whose name embodies the desire to be part of a space where love exists, was chosen to define the boundaries of the Hebrew nation. Simultaneously, Levi’s desire to feel at home and to be loved, is a longing that will never be fulfilled: he himself has no inheritance, no true home, in Israel.

I want to believe that Maimonides understood the trauma of the Levites. In his book Mishneh Torah, when he explains why the tribe of Levi does not have a portion in the land of Israel, he chooses to use the verb ז.כ.ה  (zakhah). In Mishnaic and Midrashic literature, zakhah signifies receiving a gift by virtue of one’s worthy actions and/or personality; this in contrast to gifts Jewish heroes sometimes receive from the Divine without having done anything exceptional. So, Maimonides writes:

“And why did Levi not merit (lo’ zakhah) a portion in the land of Israel? […] Because he was set apart to serve the LORD, to minister to Him and to instruct His straight paths and righteous judgments to the masses.”

And then, Maimonides adds the following sentence: “And [the LORD], forever blessed, merits them (zokheh lahem).” This is an unusual grammatical form, and strikes the reader as meaning that in a unique way the Divine is “found worthy” of having servants like the Levites. This great honor is the true inheritance of the “homeless tribe.”

It was Maimonides’ understanding, that the sons of the tribe of Levi would do everything out of love, including dedicating their lives to serving the Divine. Such holy servants, like many of those I’ve met in my life who dedicate their lives to repairing the world, often carry within themselves a simmering trauma. Somehow, they cannot find healing, or a deep sense of being loved.  I believe that Maimonides understood this, and chose the verb ז.כ.ה. to emphasize the Divine promise “to find merit in them” – granting them what they deserve without exploiting them.

The American poet, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, depicted Leah’s pain in the following verses:

With years of child after child/ Leah resembled a milk cow/ She lumbered heavily on swollen feet; Her eyes protruded from her flesh,/Pits of denied love/ He rarely came/ And when he did/ It was over before it began/ He would not till her fields/ Or plow her soil/ Or plant honeysuckle kisses on her lips/ He merely groaned and fled,/ Leaving her with endless tears of frustration.

Levi carries within him his mother’s pain. Not without reason does he rush to minister to lepers, and to all those whose bodies are not smooth and whole, people whose very existence society tries to ignore. The Levites’ role is to ensure that the lepers’ bodies appear “healthy enough” for the community, so that they can return to it without being expelled, time and again. I’m sure that inwardly, the Levitical priests want to scream at the Hebrew community: “Why do you continue to cast out from the camp those whose bodies carry the wounds of trauma, when we too, all of us, have trauma in our souls?” At the same time, like their ancestor Levi, these priests have internalized the cruelty that exists in every community and people. Therefore, they continue to examine the body of the leper, over and over. Perhaps, this time, the body will be healed enough, and can return rejoicing home to the camp of Israel. In Leah’s words: “Maybe this time my husband will accompany me.”

About the Author
Dr. Yakir Englander is working to create Jewish and Israeli leadership in the US at the IAC. Originally from the ultra-Orthodox community of Israel, the Viznitz Hasidic dynasty, Englander earned a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in Jewish philosophy and gender studies. He is a Fulbright scholar and was a visiting professor of Religion at Northwestern and Rutgers universities and Harvard Divinity School. In addition, he was a Shalom Hartman scholar in Jerusalem. Englander served as the Jerusalem director of Kids4Peace and later as the vice president of the organization. All of my blogs were translated by Dr. Henry R. Carse
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